Anton Harber

The fine art of communication

2006-12-18 07:41

Anton Harber

Earlier this year, I was involved in research around the state of government communications - testing whether, in the eyes of journalists, things had improved or deteriorated in recent years.

Students (including me), under the supervision of research guru Jos Kuper, interviewed editors and senior journalists across the country asking them for their views on how well central government communicated. The research was commissioned - bravely - by the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) itself, in a bid to improve their service.

We found that most journalists - with just a few exceptions - said there had been improvements at the central government level, though there were still a number of issues and problems. Notably, it was found that the quality of communication varied greatly between departments, with a couple shining brightly, a couple getting appalling ratings, and most languishing somewhere in the middle.

The problems that were enumerated included government communication officials with a lack of skills and a lack of understanding of the media and journalists' needs. Many reporters spoke of an attitude common among government communicators that they were there to defend their principal rather than act as a communication channel.

But one thing stood out in the comments and it has become increasingly clear to me over time that it is the root problem with most of our official communication: the lack of status and recognition given to media officers.

One should say that the official guidelines for these officials are well drafted and broadly in keeping with the constitutional values of transparency and accountability. (They are freely available on the GCIS website.) GCIS argues constantly for those responsible for communication to be given high rank and recognition.

Not in the loop

These officials may have this status in formal terms, but in many departments they are out of the loop. They have to wait to be told what is going on behind closed doors and what is to be communicated and then told to go ahead and do it. They are expected to be nothing but parrots.

A government communicator who is not taking part in serious policy and decision-making, and who does not have free and regular access to their principal, such as the minister or director-general, is wasting everyone's time.

A journalist can usually tell within minutes whether the spokesperson is part of the decision-making process and fully briefed, or whether he or she is there just to take questions and pass them on to other officials who may or may not answer them.

A media official who insists in everything in writing usually falls into the first, rather sad, category. Someone who has the confidence to chat to journalists, share thoughts and analyses, and point them in different directions, is someone who knows what is going on in their department and is therefore useful to journalists, and influential among them.

An effective communication official takes part in decisions and is listened to at the highest level so that the media implications of all decisions are part of departmental strategy and thinking, rather than an afterthought. They should be among the most powerful officials in every department.

If they are not, they might be competent and skilled, but they can't do their job. And as far as I can see, that is the case in all those departments which score poorly in communications.

  • Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism and Media Studies, Wits University and blogs at

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